Taken October 25, 2015 at Cleveland Skydiving Center by Rich
- “How do I get into skydiving?”
This is probably one of the more common questions I get when people find out I’m a skydiver. There are countless others, ranging from pricing to height/weight/age requirements to how hard it is to breathe in freefall. In all honesty, pick any dropzone, go to their website, and there’s a good chance you will find a FAQ section that lists all of these. Sometimes it becomes so redundant that I see people give-up and start writing their own hilarious answers. Nonetheless, there are a thousand different questions any prospective skydiver might have. Hell, I probably asked my fair share during my first jump course as well.
As a quick disclaimer, I am not an Instructor, Coach, Rigger, DZO, I/E, S&TA, or any authority on skydiving whatsoever. I am a newly-licensed jumper, holding an A License, as well as a licensed pilot and aeronautics graduate. To some people, I’m a “videographer extreme sports junkie,” to others I’m “that crazy guy who jumps out of a perfectly good airplane.” In reality I’m just a young, ambitious skydiver who loves the sport and loves seeing other people get into it. So why am I writing this? Because I want people to hear a different perspective. The one from somebody who just received their license. Somebody who is fresh out of training, and has a clear memory on what training was like. I will be avoiding technical discussion as much as possible, and being that I am not an instructor, nothing I write in this article is meant as technical advice in any aspect of skydiving. If you decide to go skydiving, you make that decision as an adult, and I hope you, as an adult, are able to be patient, humble, and willing to learn and accept coaching from the trained professionals that you go with.
Going for a Skydive
I did my first skydive as a way to celebrate graduating high school, back in 2011. In all reality, I couldn’t have cared less about graduating high school, and it was just an excuse to go do it. I did this at Skydive Orange, via a tandem jump.
Tandem is the easiest, cheapest, and safest method of instruction for a first jump, as well as the most common. I say “instruction” because you are technically a student, even if you only plan on doing one jump and never coming back. Which is perfectly fine. Skydiving is not for everyone. However, I definitely think most people should give it a try at-least once.
On a tandem skydive, you are connected to an instructor via four attach-points on a harness: two at the waist, two on the shoulders. The instructor wears a tandem rig, with a rather large canopy and a drogue parachute. As a student, you clip on in front of the instructor, and both of you make the skydive together. In the heavily paraphrased words of legendary skydiver Bill Booth, on his famous safety and liability video I’ve seen played countless times at many dropzones, “You are considered a student because what you do can have an impact on the skydive.” In addition, he makes the comparison that this is NOT a theme-park ride. In my opinion, tandem skydiving is extremely safe, but I am not going to sugarcoat it in any means just to convince people to do it. It’s an extreme sport. You should know that when you sign-up. Now, if I’m going up for a jump, and I see a tandem student in the plane that is obviously very nervous? I usually try to say something to calm them down and get them excited. After all, it’s supposed to be fun. Every single skydive you make should (and will) be fun.
Enough on that, though. Any respectable dropzone will give you sufficient information on a tandem skydive, and I’m going to focus back on what this article is intended to describe: learning to skydive.
The Background Knowledge
Alright, so you want to learn to skydive. You’ve seen the videos, heard the stories, and have always wondered how awesome it would feel to be a skydiver. Maybe you want to take this sport professionally, maybe you just enjoy it and want a fun sport to do on the weekends. You want to learn how to do it, but you don’t know where to start, and you have a thousand questions. Or, maybe you have no interest in actually skydiving, but are just curious about it. Either way, hopefully my descriptions of learning to jump are helpful or at least interesting.
Just for the sake of clarification, let’s throw some quick acronyms out there, to alleviate any future confusion:
- USPA: United States Parachute Association. An organization that acts as the industry governing body for skydiving, as well as for representing and growing the sport to the public
- AFF: Accelerated Free Fall. A common method of learning to skydive, and the one I did. A training method where you jump “solo” (as in not tandem) with one or two instructors by your side, holding onto you in freefall but without any mechanical connection. The canopy ride is done solo, albeit often with a radio.
For many of the technical questions, I recommend referencing the materials published online by the USPA. Different dropzones may follow slightly different progressions, although many follow the same general standard. In my case, I believe I did approximately 6 AFF jumps, 4 or 5 coach jumps, a thousand “hop and pops,” and various jumps on solo status. FYI, in addition to passing all required jumps and meeting all freefall and canopy requirements, the minimum for an A License is 25 jumps. Other requirements included packing, passing the appropriate knowledge tests, and passing a check dive, among others. The USPA or your local dropzone can provide more information in this regard.
The USPA offers four levels of licensing: A, B, C, and D, with the latter being held to the highest standard. Among many other requirements, an A License requires 25 jumps, a D license requires 500 jumps. All tandem instructors hold a D License. Once you get your A License and are off of student status, a whole new world opens up to you. You become a self-supervised skydiver, and much more liability falls on you, as opposed to an instructor or your dropzone. You are no longer required to wear a helmet, have an instructor check your gear, or be subject to wind-speed limitations. This doesn’t mean it’s “okay” to not do these things, it just shows that more liability falls on you as a jumper. In a perfect world, I would like to assume that every skydiver is capable of making smart decisions, even in difficult or pressuring circumstances. In reality, this is not always the case. I’m very young in this sport, but I’ve heard some second-hand stories and seem some videos of people making some not-so-good decisions. I don’t want to be that guy.
Before we begin discussing my experiences as an first-time skydive up to being a licensed skydiver, there is one last subject I want to touch on, and that is legality. The reason I do this is because it often seems to be misunderstood. Skydiving is, in my opinion, legally comparable to flying an ultralight. You are not carrying passengers, and are assumed to take on all responsibility for your participation in this sport. The main exception is for tandem-instructors, although others exist as well, such as certain exhibition jumps. Most regulation in regards to skydiving deals with equipment standards, the flight of the jump aircraft, and the safety of those nearby that are not involved in the sport. Unlike flying an aircraft, you don’t need a license to [legally] skydive. That being said, it would be very unintelligent not to, and extremely difficult, as most dropzones will not allow operations that don’t comply with USPA standards. While some USPA regulations, or Basic Safety Requirements (BSR’s) as they’re called, are rather frustrating to some of us, they are there for a reason, and conducting skydiving operations safely is critical to both the image of the sport as well as our freedom to do it. It is important to note, however, that skydiving equipment IS subject to federal regulation. All solo sport parachutes must be of a single-harness, dual-canopy system, meaning that a main and a reserve canopy are both required. A nylon reserve must be repacked by a certified rigger every 180 days, and a main parachute must be packed by a rigger, someone supervised by a rigger, or the next person to jump it. Riggers are licensed through the FAA, and their operations are not limited solely to sport skydiving.
I also find it important to mention that all student gear is outfitted with an Automatic Activation Device (AAD). This is intended as a measure against being knocked unconscious, though in many cases seems to apply when people lose altitude-awareness as well. If maintained and calibrated correctly, it will fire your reserve parachute at a pre-determined altitude, usually 1,000′ or 750′ depending on the person’s skill level, if it believes that your main canopy has not been deployed.
Getting My License
Most of my jumps have been from 10,500 feet. A couple of them were from 13,500, and I have done more than my fair share of hop and pops, from 5,500 as well as 3,500. Either way, you’re pretty high up, and you can generally expect to fall over two miles in the course of a matter of minutes. Is it nerve-wracking? It definitely can be. Is it exciting? Every damn time!
I live in Northeast Ohio, in Greater Cleveland as well as the Akron-Canton MSA. The majority of my jumps have been conducted at Cleveland Skydiving Center, and while I am biased because it is my home dropzone, it is one I highly recommend to anyone who wants to either learn to skydive or go on a tandem jump. The staff are extremely friendly, knowledgeable, and professional, but their upbeat and generally relaxed demeanor will help calm many of your jitters. Believe me, there are actually quite a few dropzones within an easy 1-2 hour drive of my house, and there’s a reason I stay primarily at CSC.
So, how do you choose a dropzone? Well, personally I did a google search, found a dropzone, checked out their website to ensure it looked professional, sent them an email, and discussed training options with them. It is definitely worthwhile to have a professional, credible dropzone, and doing research, talking to skydivers, and even visiting the dropzone can all help you make a good decision. There have been a few times as a licensed jumper I had to face the possibility of moving to a new state, and used skydiving groups on Facebook and LinkedIn to get some opinions as well.
How much money do you need to get your license? This is a hard one to answer, because we all like the concept of a simple flat-rate, which usually doesn’t exist. The short answer: I spent approximately $2300 to get my A License. The longer answer? I never failed a jump and had to repeat it. Quite a few people do. Also, due to the way many of the loads just happened to play out, I did a number of lower-altitude jumps, saving a few dollars here and there. I budgeted the aforementioned amount of money needed for my license, but I never would have guessed how much some of the extraneous costs add up. There were no “hidden fees” as far as the training went, but I still had to pay for gas to drive there all the time. Let’s also not forget buying water, Gatorade, and food to keep me alert and functional. Those weekend hangouts at the dropzone? Spent my fair share of money on alcohol, pizza, and whatever else. Every skydiver also needs a t-shirt to show that he is one. Some of these costs are not exactly entirely necessary to get your license, but in my opinion, you’re shortchanging yourself if you skip them. Skydiving is all about having fun, and being a part of the culture, making friends, and having good times with other jumpers is a huge part of it.
How did I do it? Aside from the one tandem jump I did a few years back, I started with an AFF class. This consisted of around six hours of very hands-on ground school training. There were five of us in my class, and at the time of writing this, I’m the only one I know of with a license. One guy moved, another one is on his way to getting it, and the other two I have no idea about, although I heard they got injured (not skydiving related). I asked a friend who is a dropzone employee one time how many people who go through a first jump course end up getting their license, and she said it’s usually around one third. Some people realize it just isn’t for them. Some people don’t make it a priority, and are then unable to complete it in a rather quick amount of time because they either lack money or they miss the “good weather days” because they are busy doing something else. Some people don’t like it because they are too afraid, some people don’t like it because they struggle with the technical aspects of it, and some people probably just don’t like it for no real reason at all. Besides, we all like what we like. Basketball doesn’t scare me, and I don’t find it difficult, but I sure as hell don’t like it. All personal taste.
Now, in my opinion, the first jump course is not terribly difficult. It is definitely intensive, and it is a lot of information, but you just need to be able to understand the concepts and practice them until you feel sufficient with them. Or realistically, until they feel that you are. Mine was small, and while intensive and professional, was rather relaxed. We made friends, we did things hands-on, we asked questions, and we didn’t sit at a desk. We also climbed countless times onto a mock-up aircraft, practiced our exits, threw fake pilot chutes, and ran through emergency procedures until you start saying them in your sleep. Ironically enough, we actually saw them get used during our class. As we walked outside to discuss landing patterns, a tandem jump had a line-over and cutaway without issue. What were the chances of that happening? Pretty damn low. What were the chances of that happening when it did? Even lower. Nonetheless, by the time I was in freefall on my first jump and had to pull, I felt confident I could identify and handle an emergency if it came up.
Main canopy deployment on my third jump. Courtesy of John Dutton
Is it nerve-wracking on your first training jump? Goddamn right it is. My first tandem I honestly did not feel very nervous, and after I landed, I was actually told many people feel more nervous on their second jump than their first. I can attest to this. I’m not sure why it is, but my main guess is that many people do their first jump tandem and their second one “solo” as part of an AFF class. In other words, when that canopy opens up, it’s only you flying it, not an instructor.
Many of my early jumps were conducted in a small plane, a Cessna 180, with what we called a “floating exit,” where you climb out onto the wing strut and let go. Climbing out onto the side of a plane, at 10,500 feet, with an airspeed of around 80mph, is definitely not a normal feeling at first.
I never failed a jump, although I will easily admit that some were performed better than others. I also had multiple jumps that occurred 2+ weeks after the previous one, allowing plenty of time for the nervousness and the adrenaline to set back in. Besides, when you only have less than a handful of jumps, your abilities can very easily start to fade away. But, summer of 2015 in Northeast Ohio was pretty sub-par as far as weather was concerned, and being 22 and in my first year as a college graduate, I couldn’t throw down the same amount of money each week as everyone else. Now, I came regularly, built up a rapport, and had an outstanding dropzone, so there were times when I was told to keep jumping when I had the chance, and just pay next week when I got my paycheck. Trust, connections, and relationships go a long way in this sport.
My AFF jumps were completed without issue. Techniques I had to demonstrate included practice pulls, altitude awareness, stability, and turns, as well as constant review of emergency procedures.
Alright, now let’s fast-forward a couple jumps to the end of my AFF progression. At this point, I have about five AFF jumps under my belt, and it is time to do my pre-solo check. In the words of my DZO, “This is the jump that will change everything.” I was to do a dive exit (my favorite), perform various in-flight maneuvers such as loops and barrel rolls, and, most importantly of all, demonstrate my ability to recover if I were to lose control. In short, this jump was intended to put me out of control, to show that I could regain it. While definitely nerve-wracking, it was extremely fun, and passing it allowed me to move onto solo status.
“Out of control.” My pre-solo jump, courtesy of John Dutton
In my opinion, the freefall aspects of initial AFF training are not terribly difficult. You need to be able to relax your mind, focus in a high-pace environment, and practice. Even without jumping, techniques such as properly arching your back, or using your shoulders to turn, can be practiced in your living room. I’m not an advanced skydiver by any means, but I am a pilot, a skateboarder, and whitewater kayaking instructor, and I have a general belief that all of these types of sports correlate somewhat with each other. Part of it is being methodical, part of it is finesse, and part of it is thinking in high-stress situations. The one thing, however, that was rather difficult for me? Transferring from flying an aircraft to flying a parachute. Glide ratios are a lot different, and skydivers under canopy can safely and legally fly a lot closer together than fixed-wing aircraft usually should. That took a minute to get used to. I also had my fair share of landings in the field on the dropzone, as opposed to the target landing area. FYI, most early AFF jumps are equipped with a one-way radio to guide you in on landing.
Freefall techniques become much more intensive as you move onto your coach jumps, although in my opinion are still not terribly difficult. These included docking, altitude changes, tracking, swoop and docks, etc. In other words, you go from maintaining stability and basic maneuvers in freefall to being able to fly your body, and greatly start to improve your finesse. In addition, the requirements to be a coach are less than that of an instructor, and there tend to be more of them than instructors. This generally means that it’s easier to find someone to do them with on a given day, and they are cheaper.
Coming in to dock. Courtesy of Ethan Landry
Now, I’ve mentioned a few times previously that skydiving is meant to be fun, and even the most intensive of training jumps are still fun. But believe me, these coach jumps are way more fun than your initial AFF jumps. The learning curve is steeper, in my opinion, but they are not terribly difficult. That being said, many people fail a jump, or two, or a few, at some point in their A License progression. It’s not something to feel bad about, or question your potential in the sport. As with anything, there are going to be better and worse days. I had days where I was proud of myself because my instructors told me I did very well. I also had a day where I bumped a closing pin and my reserve pilot chute fired in the plane.
Every jump with an instructor or coach included a briefing and debriefing, and many instructors used video to help show what I did from an outside perspective. In my opinion, that is extremely helpful. In addition, being surrounded by a large number of instructors, coaches, and licensed jumpers was of huge benefit. It was like learning to fly; if you have trouble understanding a concept, maybe somebody else knows a way to explain it differently. Every person teaches slightly differently, and every person learns slightly differently. This applies to anything from skydiving to basic subtraction.
At this point, I’ve covered the AFF as well as the coach jump portions of my training, but there were many other things to consider. For example, part of the required training consists of “hop and pop” jumps, in my case from 5,500 and 3,500 feet. I’ve been told that the purpose of these jumps is to demonstrate the ability to gain stability and pull, in case it ever has to be done in the event of an aircraft emergency. Additionally, hop and pops are cheaper, can be done with low cloud ceilings, and, in the case of many of my jumps, done when the load scheduling didn’t allow for a jump from altitude. In my case, this was due to having a plane with a five-jumper capacity already having two tandems on it. Due to the necessity to move around and hook-up at altitude, any fun-jumper who went along had to get out lower. In my opinion, as well as pretty much that of any skydiver, any jump is better than no jump!
Why do I mention these hop and pops? Because, for your first time, they can be kinda scary. The danger is not overly significant, but it is a bit of a change for a jumper who is used to exiting at either 10,500 or 13,500. In fact, my first “solo” jump, i.e. on solo status after AFF, was a hop and pop. After I got that out of the way, pretty much all of the nervousness with jumping at full altitude disappeared.
This brings up another question I’ve been asked: how long until the nervousness goes away? Well, that’s a hard one, because it is different for everybody, and we all probably define it differently. Fact is, jumping out of a plane is not natural, your body is not made to do it, and I’ve known many confident, experienced jumpers who still say they feel a little something before each jump. However, in my case, it was around jump 14 or 15 that the vast majority of the nervous feeling was gone. In fact, while I definitely got rather nervous before many of my coach jumps and my check dive, it was due to the feeling of “being tested,” and not necessarily out of fear for my safety. Differing levels of nervousness and excitement will vary per the jump in my opinion. Different aircraft, different dropzones, different altitudes, different maneuvers, and different equipment can all pose a new feeling of slight uncertainty. There are also the physiological factors to account for, such as your level of alertness, and the psychological ones, such as external factors in your life unrelated to skydiving that might be in the back of your mind. In my humble opinion, if you’re having a bad fight with the girlfriend, you might want to consider sitting that day out.
First group flight after my A License. Courtesy of Jim Prinzo
I’ve gotten a ton of “What if?” questions from aspiring skydivers, and I will refrain from getting into detail regarding these as they will be answered during your training by somebody more qualified than myself. Off-landings, clouds, malfunctions, etc. are all touched upon, and believe me, emergency procedures are not taken lightly by instructors. We ran through them before every AFF jump. Being able to identify an issue, such as a line-over or a slider that isn’t all of the way down, is a key part of training. Accidents are near-always preventable, and many result from a chain of mistakes, not just a single one. I covered this extensively in flight school and undergraduate studies with regards to the overall aviation system, and it seems rather similar in skydiving. In addition, complacence and stupidity cause their share of issues. I think it is very important to understand and be able to accept that skydiving is an extreme sport, with unpredictable variables, and you can do everything right and still get killed. The “it can’t happen to me” attitude has no place in this sport. It’s also just as important to address what is known as “comparative optimism.” This is the belief that you will not suffer the same mistakes as somebody else, because you are somehow automatically, more careful, more deliberate, or more intelligent just because you are you. If you plan on being smart, careful, and deliberate, as you should, you need to recognize it is something that takes careful effort as well as the ability to make very difficult decisions, and is not something that is automatically granted to you because you just happen to be you.
How long did it take me to get my license? A lot longer than it should have. Approximately four months total elapsed time, but still pretty much equivalent to the general time of 1-2 months, if I were jumping every weekend. All of June and half of May were weathered out, as were various weekends afterwards. After all, like I said, this is Northeast Ohio. Early on, when jumps required 1-2 AFF instructors and a ground instructor to work the radio, staffing considerations were of heavy importance. Let’s also mention the fact that I quit my job, so money was a huge factor that limited my ability to jump. Most of the season we had one plane available, with a five jumper capacity and a half-hour ride to altitude, which definitely gave us a lower amount of jumpers per hour than say Skydive Arizona, who could do hundreds if they wanted to. A surprising amount of dropzones rely off one or two Cessnas; not everyone has a nice King Air or Skyvan on-site always at the ready (but, if you get the chance to visit a dropzone that does, definitely do it). Some places offer courses where you plan for getting your A License in a week, some places offer a general suggestion of a month or two. Some people take multiple seasons. Of course, the concept of seasons is a geographic one. Skydive Arizona and Skydive Deland have more jumpable days than anything in Ohio, or Wisconsin, or the Pacific Northwest.
Now what? Having a license is not a magic master key to the world of skydiving. There are a number of different licenses and ratings that exist. Certain aspects of flight, such as flying a camera or a wingsuit, require a minimum number of jumps (200 for those examples). Night jumps, balloon flight, and other aspects of the sport I have yet to do, have their own unique requirements. Some dropzones require a B or C License for any jumper, such as Skydive Dubai’s Palm DZ, and some dropzones have various landing areas that are only open to a particular license. Coaches, AFF instructors, and tandem instructors are each subject to their own unique prerequisites.
Nonetheless, receiving that license still opens up a vast amount of opportunity to continue to build your skill and experience. Being able to do group freefall formations is far more fun than just jumping solo. Being able to make your own decisions regarding equipment or wind speed is a great amount of freedom, although it requires an extreme amount of sense and responsibility. In all honesty, one of my favorite parts of having a license is that I am no longer required to wear a jumpsuit. At the time of my writing this it is a rather moot point, since ten thousand feet up in the air in October is all but warm, but I do not at all miss the crowded rides up to altitude, in a small plane, wearing a jumpsuit when it felt like it was a hundred degrees outside in the middle of the summer months.
Having that license opens up many travel opportunities. Being as you no longer are required to have instructor supervision, it is far easier to travel to different dropzones and make a jump. You can rent equipment virtually anywhere that offers it, and you having a license puts far less liability on the dropzone itself. Plus, any licensed jumper can sign-off on your logbook. Being able to jump without an instructor on-board is a definite plus. Now, let’s talk about the one last aspect of skydiving, and probably one of the most common things asked.
What does it feel like?
The classic answer is “it’s like explaining sex to a virgin.” You won’t know until you do it. I describe it as taking your girlfriend out to dinner, saying your food is really good, and her asking what it tastes like. You could try to describe it, probably giving some half-assed, fumbling description, or you could just let her take a bite and taste it for herself.
The average terminal velocity for a solo skydiver in a conventional belly-down position is around 120mph. In practical use, we say about a thousand feet every five seconds, which equates to two hundred feet per second. In other words, every second you are falling more than the height of Niagara Falls. However, you generally don’t notice it that way. You don’t always have a frame of reference for relative motion, and if you do it’s usually a cloud or the aircraft you exited from (and believe me, that one doesn’t stay in sight for very long). Once you hit terminal velocity, which from a floating exit usually takes 9-12 seconds, you are no longer accelerating, and are maintaining a constant speed down. Some people say it’s like being on a giant fan. Regardless, in my opinion, it does NOT feel like a roller coaster drop like everyone tends to assume.
Why do we do it? Everyone has their own reasons, and to be honest, we all probably have many. If you ask me, I would say you get to experience flight. Before I flew powered aircraft, I flew a Schleicher ASK-21 glider, and had an instructor jokingly say there’s a difference between flying and driving a plane behind an engine. Human body flight is an indescribable experience, and as you progress as a skydiver, you see yourself getting better at it and pushing new limits. By the way, through tracking, it is very feasible to fly your body horizontally at 100mph in freefall. Also, very few people get to experience the pride of body and canopy flight. Every time you fly, you are doing something many people would never do, or even be able to do.
I don’t think we’re adrenaline junkies, even though I have affectionately used the term before. The reasoning being is that the adrenaline, the fear, the nervousness, are not consistent, and all but go away in many cases. Your first skydive is a life-changing experience. Every skydive you do is an amazing opportunity and an awesome time, but eventually you can land, pack your rig, have a calm demeanor and heart-rate, get in your car, and drive off to work or dinner or class like nothing happened. That overwhelming adrenaline rush and the non-stop jitters might not be there on every jump or every landing, but the pride will. The enjoyment will. The sensation of precise, finesse human body flight will.
It’s Jump Time
So, go out there, have fun, and skydive. If you don’t want to, that’s perfectly alright. If you have never jumped but really want to, or at least think you want to, fork-out the money and go for a tandem jump. You might be addicted, you might have little or no interest in pursuing the sport seriously afterwards, but I can give you a 99.999% guarantee that you will enjoy the hell out of it. If you enjoy it enough to want to do it every now and then, but not do anything crazy with it, there’s nothing wrong with just doing the occasional tandem jump. AFF courses are intensive, expensive, and time-consuming. Hell, you might even have a hard-time ever getting your parents, spouses, boyfriends/girlfriends, or children to ever understand why you would even want to. Pursuing a skydiving license is not for everyone, but to anyone who has jumped and has the feeling that they want to take this sport more seriously, go out and do it. I hope you see it through to the end, but even if you don’t, if you at any point decide it’s not from you, you will have experiences that most people never will. The times you have, experiences you get, stories you tell, and the friends you make are something that nobody can put a price on.
I’ll leave you with one last tidbit of information, and I encourage anyone to share this with their friends and families who are somewhat interested, but not entirely sure:
People in their 90’s and 100’s have tandem skydived, and blind people have passed through AFF.
Clear skies and calm winds,
United States Parachute Association
Finding a Dropzone
Answers to General, First Jump, and Licensing Questions
Skydiver’s Information Manual – USPA